Asian groceries used to be available only through specialist supermarkets, but now home delivery services are bringing foods such as raw turmeric and Alphonso mangoes to a wider audience.You can order pretty much anything online these days – and now that includes bitter gourds and fresh bunches of fenugreek.Before, you’d have to travel to a grocery store specialising in ethnic foods to buy your typically Asian ingredients. But in the last few years, a handful of online retail start-ups founded by British Asians have entered the market, enabling shoppers in the UK and Europe to buy small aubergines and okra from the comfort of their own homes.Working mum Jyoti Patel began setting up her online Indian grocery company Red Rickshaw five years ago in West London. “Having a city job, then coming home and trying to create an Asian dish from scratch – as well as finding the time to go to an Asian store to get all the ingredients” was tiring and time-consuming, she says.”Especially on a weekend when you’d rather lie in!”She thought there must be a better way.
With a product range of around 5,000 items, ranging from organic spices, lentils, rice, halal meat and ghees to fresh fruit and vegetables, they now reach thousands of customers across the UK from their West London warehouse.Most customers, like mother-of-two Joyce Tiwari from Harrow, north-west London, are from the Asian community. “To be honest, I don’t have time to go and pick vegetables. The thing we order most is a ready-made idli dosa [lentil pancake] batter mix, which saves me a lot of time,” she says.But increasingly, non-Asian customers seeking out more unusual cooking ingredients are using the online shopping platform as well.Nick O’Farrell, who lives in Lincolnshire and enjoys Indian cooking, was searching for bitter melon – called karela – after trying it in an Indian restaurant in Huddersfield.”I just did an online search and Red Rickshaw came up… accessibility of any ingredients is a challenge in rural Lincolnshire,” he says.Another recent player in the online Asian grocery market is Sabadda.com, which was set up in June 2016 by a group of South Indian IT professionals living in different parts of the UK.
It offers Asian grocery delivery via a mobile app service. “We had to travel a fair distance to shop for our Indian groceries to get the food which we’re used to…even then, we could not find everything we needed,” says co-founder Kalyan Chandra Varma Samanthapudi.While they had originally intended to reach customers from within their own community, 40% of their customers are non-Asian, he says.It’s a trend Jyoti Patel is keen to capitalise on, too. She’s soon launching a new line of Asian meal-kit recipe boxes that include raw ingredients and recipes.”One of the greatest barriers to having Asian food at home is know-how and access to ingredients, so we’re hoping to address both of those problems,” she says.About 14% of the UK population now does all of its grocery shopping online, according to retail analyst Mintel, up from 7% in 2014.It says services have come to market in the last year to help smaller food distribution businesses sell online, which means we’re likely to see more specialist groceries available on the internet in the coming years.”The barriers for specialist grocers – who’ve always needed a local demographic interested in those products – are broken down online; you can reach anyone at any time,” says Nick Carroll, senior retail analyst at Mintel.
“The issue for them is that it’s quite expensive from a business perspective, because it requires refrigerated trucks to get products to consumers.”The other big challenge – one that Jyoti Patel is well aware of – is resistance among traditional shoppers in Asian-populated areas like Southall and Wembley in London.These traditionalists simply don’t like the idea of having their Asian fruit and vegetables selected for them.Certain highly sought-after items, such as Indian and Pakistani mangoes, can attract large crowds at Asian grocery stores when they’re in season.Radio 4’s You and Yours programme canvassed shoppers in Harrow, north-west London – an area with a large Asian population.”I would never shop for my Asian groceries online, especially mangoes,” says shopper Smita.”I have to feel fruit and vegetables before I buy.”Another shopper, Sukaina, says her reluctance to shop for Asian groceries online is less about the perceived extra cost of doing so, and more to do with her scepticism over the freshness of home-delivered ingredients.”I think you could probably get more deals online, but for me it’s just the freshness factor,” she says.Asian online grocery delivery companies say they offer competitive prices and ensure the quality of their fresh produce.But Jyoti Patel admits there’s more work to do in persuading people that the time saved choosing home delivery outweighs the benefit of choosing your own groceries by hand.To hear more on this, check out BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme here